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21/05/2009

L'Astrance, Paris

L’Astrance

★★★★★

The signature at l’Astrance looks like a strange sort of pie. Layer after layer of mandolined white mushrooms and slivers of apple, bulked and buffed by foie gras steeped in verjuice. There’s a slick of hazelnut oil to bring balance and depth, and a shining splot of roasted lemon. It looks weird and unsettling, like the greyish muck a vegetarian eats at Christmas - but pierced, flaked and fluttering on the tongue, it’s astonishing.

I’d always thought that the point of foie gras was its silken fattiness, that the most exquisite livers teeter just this side of disgusting. But here, the soily bite of the raw fungi, the vibrance of verjuice and lemon, the little dusting of mushroom powder, bring an exuberant, almost trivial lightness to the meat.

That’s the extraordinary thing Pascal Barbot does. His food is classically French in that it retains a solemn respect for ingredients, that everything on the plate justifies its inclusion, that surgical care and cultivated dexterity are behind every dish. But there’s none of the swamped pappiness you get from roux-based saucing, the stodged, stultifying luxury of a typical tasting menu. Nouvelle cuisine began modernising French cooking some decades ago, but anyone who’s visited Paris recently will have seen how hard such habits die.

L’Astrance is supposedly the city’s most elusive reservation: a single dining room with just 26 covers, and three stars in the Guide Rouge. Controversially – if only because rich people tend to enjoy ordering waiters about – there’s no menu. Well, not quite. You choose whether you want three, five or seven courses, detail any ridiculous diets or confected allergies, and the kitchen does the rest. There isn’t even a wine list, although the front of house does boast Gault Millau’s sommelier of the year.

The dining room is bright rather than frivolous, comfortable rather than cushy, with darkly silvered walls and splashes of yellow and gold. Bread from Poujauran arrives instantly, and is some of the best I remember eating – open-crusted, with a musty, startlingly sour taste, although the butter is much too salty. The first amuses are a slice of somewhat overcooked brioche with a dab of rosemary cream, and a teaspoon of Parmesan purée. It seems initially a gloopy, over-rich start, like beginning with the cheese course. But the point is made clear by the second amuse, a shot of pea soup with ginger foam. The spice blasts the soup like a defibrillator, balancing that initial cheesiness, and setting the scene for what follows.

Shockingly tender, a langoustine and a prawn are pinkly brothed in a crustacean fumet with a whisper of peanut. Blooming with petals, it’s among the most beautiful things I’ve ever eaten. Then a generous flop of monkfish with asparagus stalks thick as marker pens, a zipping citric sauce and an Asiatic quenelle of mango and papaya. Beside them is a razor clam imbued with garlic and thyme, the flavours floating like mist from the rubbery mollusc. Then red mullet with beetroot leaf and a nasty sauce made with fermented anchovies, smelling like rotten mackerel, piscine and algae green, choking the rouget.

A perfect nubbin of suckling pig is next, with pocked morels textured like tripe. A couple of foams make an appearance here, and for once their spawny lick brings something to a dish. Last of the savouries is a homage to pigeon: breast, thigh – trimmed so we can eat from the bone – and liver, with the sweetest, tiniest mangetout, no bigger than your thumbnail.

A sorbet of lime and chilli grabs us like a bear-hug, fresh and sparking with delicate heat. Then a witty pudding instead of cheese. What looks like a log of goat’s turns out to be tubular meringue wrapping purées of pistachio and red fruit; and then a passion fruit tart bleeding such concentrated flavour, it takes my breath away. Coffee, cognac, petits fours of jasmine egg-nog served in eggshells, hazelnut madeleines, fresh fruit, and we’re done.

Typically, after a lunch this size, I hoist my capacious bottom from its seat and waddle away, plump as a brandy-soaked raisin. Certainly, we ate well here, but there was an equilibrium to the meal, a deft amalgam of generosity and poise, which meant we could potter under Eiffel’s nearby tower without the rinsed bloating that typically follows a degustation. Barbot’s cooking is proof enough against those who sound the knell for French food and its pre-eminence. He treats ingredients as the French always have: absorbing, adapting, melding, and he does so with judicious, wholly individual flair. I’d go so far as to wager that this clean, globalised approach represents the future of French cooking. And I find that hugely exciting.


L’Astrance, 4 Rue Beethoven, 75016 Paris
Tel.: +33 (0)1 4050 8440


Lunch or dinner costs between €70 and €290pp, depending on menu and wines.

http://www.lastrance.abemadi.com/

7 comments:

  1. Wow, what a meal! I thought that lemon was an egg yolk at first - it thoroughly confused me. That meringue looks absolutely amazing!

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  2. What an incredible looking meal.
    I'd like to think I'll be visiting this place in July - but, especially how things are going with the Pound - it's going to be a bit out of my price-range. Perhaps for lunch.

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  3. What a fantastic experience. Your pictures are great.

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  4. Utterly utterly magnificent, restaurant and review both.

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  5. Helen - The signature is a truly extraordinary dish. I'd never tasted like it. The meringue was such a pretty surprise!

    Dan - Three courses for €70 is of course lots of money, but it's definitely worth it for the product on offer. Tables are meant to be hard to get but I'd happily share my secrets with you!

    Lizzie - Thanks! Though wrong of me to take any credit, since all the art's in the plating.

    Thomas - Very kind. Thank you.

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  6. Oliver - that's very generous of you, I may well take you up on being let into your secret reservation technique.

    To be honest, I think I was more put off less by the 70 Euro price tag, which as you point out is fine for three courses of that quality- than the 240 Euro top end blowout fest. Imagining the bottom end to perhaps consist of a jug of H20, some dry toast and being launched into the street with a boot in the posterior for being a peasant - I'm now reassured that it consists of some substance.

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